DVB-T2 is here as Government decides on DTT standard
While the January decision to adopt the European DVB-T2 standard for the migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT) was met with much enthusiasm by the telecommunications and broadcasting industries, there is still much to be done if we are to meet the December 2013 switch-off deadline.
In this article we examine what digital migration is all about, the situation in South Africa, some of the controversy surrounding DTT and what moving to DTT will mean.
What is Digital Migration?
Digital migration refers to the switch from an analogue broadcasting system to a digital broadcasting system. This has been a world-wide move for some time now and has been driven by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). All countries are required to switch from an analogue to a digital television broadcasting signal by June 2015.
The rationale behind migration lies with improvements in image quality, allowing more channels in the same broadcast spectrum at lower cost and the flexibility to embed a variety of non-video aspects in the transmission data, such as time and region based controls, copy restrictions and program guides.
Various African countries, including Namibia and Mauritius have adopted the DVB-T standard and commenced digital broadcasting. Namibia has had a DTT service (pioneered by MultiChoice) since 2005 (though terrestrial reception is confined to Windhoek) and Mauritius has had digital terrestrial services since 2006.
History behind SA’s migration strategy
With South Africa’s lack of cable-TV and wired telephony, wireless platforms are key to digital migration. At present, two wireless digital platforms dominate – digital satellite (also known as direct-to-home or DTH, which is the system DStv utilises) and digital terrestrial television (DTT).
The South African government opted for DTT to get analogue households to go to digital as digital terrestrial set-top boxes/decoders (required to convert the old analogue signal for reception in digital) are cheaper than digital satellite boxes and there is no requirement for a satellite dish.
Coupled to the digital platform is the digital terrestrial technology standard that will be deployed. And it was this choice of standard that led to much procrastination on the part of the South African government, and the Department of Communications in particular.
The choice of standard has a variety of implications – cost, functionality, capability, licencing, standards, royalties, open systems, local IP and more.
In 2005 the South African government selected the European DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast-Terrestrial) standard for DTT due to its wide international acceptance and superior technology (at the time).
This decision was later ratified in September 2008 when the Minister of Communications, Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, published the Broadcast Digital Migration Policy. It was on this basis that industry broadcasters and manufacturers – Sentech, MultiChoice, Altech and others – began gearing up for the switch to DTT based on this standard. This included trial broadcasts by the broadcasters with set-top-boxes supplied by Altech UEC.
However, in April 2010, with a new Minister of Communications, Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, the Department of Communications put the proverbial “spanner in the works” when it called for a “standards symposium” to investigate other DTT standards, in particular the Brazilian version of the Japanese ISDB-T (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial) standard. This caused an uproar in the industry as a switch in standard at such a late stage would not only cause South Africa to miss its self-imposed switch off date of April 2013, but also have an impact on the local set-top-box (STB) manufacturing industry which had been gearing up to meet the local and regional demand for STBs based on DVB-T.
A change to ISDB-T would also result in a flood of STB imports from Brazil and Japan and would not only raise the cost of the STBs but also impact local industry by causing the collapse of small empowered manufacturers that had invested in DVB-T in the hope of developing South African STBs for sale to the rest of the continent.
The procrastination by government was seen by many industry commentators, Altech included, as irrational as millions had already been spent on developing decoders and transmitters based on DVB-T. And with the Brazilian system working on a different frequency, more time and money would be spent on developing and testing a new technology that would add another three years before boxes based on ISDB-T appeared on shelves.
This would mean the country would be unable to create a viable manufacturing industry that could benefit from African sales as other players, such as Chinese companies, would likely move in on the continent.
Fortunately, sanity prevailed and in January this year the new Minister of Communications, Roy Padayachie, announced that South Africa would adopt an upgraded version of DVB-T – namely DVB-T2 (second generation terrestrial standard). DVB-T2 is considered 50% more spectrum-efficient than DVB-T and offers more channels over a single transmission, allowing more content to be broadcast.
This decision was welcomed by industry and as Altech CEO Craig Venter commented:
“We commend the Department of Communications and Minister Roy Padayachie for the selection of DVB-T2 as the standard for South Africa. We believe this decision fits well with the stated national objective of creating policies that encourage innovation and the development of local IP.”
Current situation in SA
There are approximately nine million television households in SA. Of these, some two million receive the pay-TV digital satellite services of MultiChoice and TopTV. These pay-TV services are received via a satellite and STB. The remaining seven million TV homes receive analogue terrestrial signals through which they access the free-to-air services of the SABC (1, 2 and 3) and eTV. These analogue TV signals are received via television aerials. Of these seven million TV households that will need to migrate to digital, more than half (4,5 million) will not be able to afford a STB – a requirement to receive DTT signals. Government has indicated that they will subsidise these STBs.
And in order for SA to go digital by December 2013, Sentech will need to upgrade and convert all its current terrestrial transmitter sites around the country to transmit DTT. In addition, STB manufacturers such as Altech UEC require more clarification with respect to the STB specifications before they can begin developing STBs based on DVB-T2.
What’s in it for Altech UEC?
The SADC countries have adopted DVB-T2, and so too have many other African countries. The potential total television household market in sub-Saharan Africa is approximately 60 million. All these households must upgrade by June 2015 to meet the ITU cut-off date - which equates to a requirement for approximately 60 million STBs.
Altech UEC currently supplies STBs to countries in Africa and has the ability locally to supply into the region – so there is a percentage of this market that is available for Altech to target.
In South Africa, with its approximately seven million TV households requiring an STB, this brings the opportunity of creating employment and up-skilling our work force in order to meet demand for STBs.
Altech UEC has already invested in developing set-top box technology based on the DVB-T standard, so scaling up for DVB-T2 is a relatively straightforward transition, although there will be some cost implications with adoption of DVB-T2, such as the need to enhance the STB’s with different tuners to allow for increased channels in the frequency spectrum.
All in all, the digital migration move is a good one for Altech and should have a positive impact on our business going forward.